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Chapter 8 - A Dance Upon Ruins

"I'm tired, can we sit down now?" -- "No Selena. We have to keep walking." -- "But I'm hungry!" she said with a frown, having Art's hand that she held on to, a good shake of displeasure. "We've been walking for hours! I want to eat!" -- "I agree completely. We should sit down and eat." -- "Yay!"

Jumping for joy, Selena went to sit down on a fallen, mossy log beside them, then looked back at Art expectantly. Art stared back at her and asked, "So where's the food?" -- "…I thought you brought some." -- "Did I? Let me check," he said as he stuck his hand and arm in the pockets of his trousers as if to check. He pulled out the white, inside flaps of each pocket, then shrugged. "I don't know where it is."

"Well, where did you put it?" -- "Oh, I don't know, back at the monastery? Along with everything else I left there?" -- "Why did you leave it back there?" Selena shouted at him with a frown. -- "I don't know, maybe having to run from big baddies in the middle of the night is a good excuse?" He looked at her on the verge of crying. "Okay, looks like no one likes my excuse." -- "I don't like your excuse, I don't like it," said Selena as she began pounding at his chest. "Can't you find us some food?" -- "Okay, okay, I'll take a look, see what I can find."

He turned about, taking in the forest scenery. Trees of all sorts stretched for as far as the eye could see. All over the woodland floor rose tall grasses, bushes, and ferns amidst stones and hillocks, dirt and moss. Birds sung in the distance, insects chirped all around, and he could hear the soft sounds of little creatures speeding through the undergrowth, just out of sight. Life went on all about him, the creatures going about their daily routines, carefree and oblivious to the disaster at the monastery.

So much bountiful nature all about him, and not a berry to pick and eat.

He glanced up at the three before him, where a bluebird sung upon a lofty branch far over head. He could leap at it with his way of the albatross, but the bird would outfly him, not to mention be able to change direction mid-flight unlike his leap. He raised his torch-staff, and thoughts of the warmth of the hearth and the heat of the flame blossomed into his mind. Atop the staff flame burst into being, and with a point of his left hand he sent the orb streaking in the general direction of the bird.

It took off almost instantly, of course. But had it stayed put, Art's bolt of fire would have missed it by over two feet. The flames went past the branches and burst aflame against the leaves further up the tree, and caught fire immediately.

He stared down at his staff in dismay, and when he saw Selena looking at him with dismay as well, gave an exaggerated sigh. "Well, it looked easy." -- "Will it help if I cheer you on?" -- "Don't, it'll scare away the birds." -- "What birds?" -- Pause, as Art looked around and listened for birdsong, of which he could hear none. "On second thought, you can cheer me on now." -- "Yay! Go get 'em, Art!"

Art shook his head in amusement, then offered his stub of an arm for her to grasp hold off, before they proceeded again through the woods. As they went, Art kept pointing out with his left index finger, sending fire bolts flying this way and that, setting trees on fire with complete abandon.

Selena ended her cheering to turn to Art. "What are you pointing them off to anyway?" -- "Nowhere, I thought if I kept it up you'd keep on cheering." -- She gave him a slap on his arm. "You know, all that cheering is making me very thirsty too. Now you owe me lunch and a nice drink." -- Art chuckled. -- "What's so funny?" -- "Nothing." He shook his head at her, a grin plastered over his face. -- "I don't believe you." -- "Well since you ask so nicely, I was just thinking of how I will have paid you back the moment we come across another stream." -- "Don't forget about the lunch too! It doesn't count if it's night when we eat. That would make it dinner. You're not going to starve me till then, are you?" She looked askance at him as he resumed shooting bolts of fire before him. "You're not even aiming, are you?"

"Here, you want to try?" he said, holding the staff out to her. -- "Sure, why not?" she said with a grin, took it and held it in her hands but holding it in the wrong place, then tried pointing out her index finger the way she'd seen him do it, then repeated the gesture a few times. Nothing happened. With a frown she asked, "Why can't I do it?" -- "Well I'm sure if you were hungry enough you'd be able to." -- "I am hungry!" -- "Well then that means I'm more hungry than you are." -- "No you aren't!" -- "Am too." -- "I said no you aren't." -- "No I'm not." -- "Yes you are!" -- "That's what I was saying." -- "… Hey, you tricked me! Get back here!" she shouted after him as he took off running, the both of them laughing as they went.

Laughing, they did not realize they'd cleared the woods until after Art stumbled out into the fields and stopped in his tracks. Laughing, Selena ran into him and wrapped her hands around him. "Caught you! I got you!" Then after seeing no reply from Art, turned to stare in the same direction.

Before him stretched acres of farmland tilled in neat rows, fields of shoulder-height wheat stalks stretching before him as far as the eye can see. To the side lay a patch of meadow, green grass stretching into the distance before merging with the forest. Straight before him stood a cluster of houses, perhaps four or five, charred and blackened and only half their walls still standing.

The midgets had passed through before them, Art thought grimly. While Art had been asleep, they'd pressed onward, and razed these buildings to the ground.

"I would say that before us is food," said Art, "except if we go there we'll become food instead." -- "Did someone say food?" -- "Oh, all right, let's go," he said, and Selena grasped his right arm by the elbow as they proceeded toward the hamlet. "Chances are they're all gone now," he muttered, noting that he could catch no sight of any fire, nor any tell tale signs of drifting smoke.

Walking down a simple dirt path, they passed the charred, half-eaten carcass of a cow, and then another, as they approached close to the hamlet. He hadn't bothered Selena from the sight; she'd seen it first, and looked away all stoic-like, as if determined to neither scream nor throw up.

Before them, the nearest of the houses half-stood only a few dozen feet away. Art pulled Selena aside, into the stalks of wheat, and crouched down to whisper to her, "I'm going ahead to see if I can't find any food for us to eat. You stay here, okay? Stay right here until I come for you. Or if I call for your name, you run for the woods, right down this dirt path, till you get to the forest edge, then you hide there till I come for you. Got it?" -- Nod. -- "Good. And if you see any monsters and they see you, you run and scream. Okay?" -- "Okay." -- "Good girl," he said, patting her on the head. -- "You will be back soon, right?" -- "Yeah, real soon. So stay quiet, okay?" -- Nod.

Staff held in hand, Art advanced up the remainder of the dirt path till he reached the blackened husk of the first house. He looked over the half collapsed wooden wall to peer into the room. Straw and thatch lay strewn everywhere. In the center, the bloody corpse of a middle-aged woman and that of a young boy. Fallen wooden planks and logs, half burned, lay crumpled on all sides amidst the charred remains of clothes. Over it all lay a carpet of brown dust and gray ashes with footprints impressed upon them.

Rounding a corner, he turned to see the razed skeletons of the other houses of the hamlet before him. And before them all a midget warrior, bearing no paint, no armor, no clothing upon its red skin beside a simple loincloth. For a moment Art froze in panic, then saw it was looking away from him, kneeled down, with one hand holding its scimitar and with the other hand inspecting something he couldn't quite make out from amongst the ruined mess of another house, whose thatch roof had half collapsed into a heap.

He could feel his mind, his weaker side, telling him to flee. This was no fight he wanted to get into, it said, not with him being so weakened from earlier, not with him bringing a staff to a sword fight, which he knew would be a recipe for disaster. Yet he suppressed his urge to flee. Succor lay this close. Food, water, whatever this hamlet held and which he desperately needed, would be his, so long as he overcame this hurdle. After hours of trudging through the forest, he could feel his hunger pangs beating in time with his pulse, he could feel the burning at the back of his parched throat. Selena, he knew, would be in no better a situation, given her youth. If he abandoned this opportunity, he might very well not make it to the nearest village, and there was no telling if other warriors lurked in other razed villages and hamlets further west.

That must be the one that left all these footprints, Art thought. It didn't know Art was here, which meant Art could surprise it, get in a killing blow with the crescent blade of his staff. Not with a blast from a fire bolt; he'd already seen its ineffectiveness when he'd been on the receiving end of such attacks, and he wanted to make the most of his surprise attack, to kill it outright with a good stab. Then with the threat eliminated, he'd be able to loot through the ruins for anything worth salvaging. Food, a container for water. If nothing else, he'd at least get himself a scimitar.

Tiptoeing, he approached the midget warrior, crescent tipped side pointed straight forward and ready to lunge. The ashes strewn all about made just a tiny bit of noise when stepped upon, hardly more than stepping on dirt. Five yards, four, three… It turned around, saw Art, froze in surprise. Art lunged with his staff, but with a swing of its scimitar the warrior parried it aside with a shout of "Rar!"

Art pulled back to prepare another thrust, but then had to continue to pull back as the warrior lashed out at him with it scimitar.

A leaf, a petal, a feather…

Knocking his staff against the flat of its blade, he knocked the scimitar off course so that it narrowly missed cutting into his outstretched arm. Then the warrior lashed out again with its scimitar, forcing Art to pull back yet again, and then again.

He heard rushed footsteps to his right. The creature's cry made sense now: it hadn't been alone. His heart sank in dismay. "Rakanishu!" he heard the shout, and without a moment's pause he ran from the hamlet, down a different dirt road from the one where Selena hid, with them in hot pursuit. He could hear the nearess of their footsteps, even as he increased his distance from them.

His staff in hand, he conjured flame atop it, then turned about to see three of the warriors in hot pursuit, and pointed at the nearest one, sending the ball of fire right at it. It fell down screaming, wreathed in flame, rolling along the ground. "Hah! Got ya!" Art had already turned to keep running, as he'd almost completely lost his lead to them from pausing just a mere second or two. Then after he'd run another two dozen steps he turned around to fire another shot -- "Got ya again!" -- and found the three of them still chased after him, the smouldering and burned one bringing up the rear. "Ah crap." As Art resumed fleeing, he knew it to have survived the flames. He couldn't get enough shots off in this way.

Within a few more seconds he'd reached the treeline, still with the creatures in pursuit. With a single flap of wings sent him leaping onto a branch, a thick one that could hold his weight, and with his right arm he steadied himself from falling. From here he could look upon the trio of his pursuers, shouting angrily and banging their scimitars against their bucklers as if challenging him to jump down and face them in honorable combat. "What, you want me to stoop to your level? Why don't you rise up to mine?"

One of them dropped its buckler, wrapped both arms around the tree trunk right below him and tried to climb up. "Uh, you, little guy. That wasn't an invitation." Art made it perish its thought with a bolt of fire right on its face, causing it to fall screaming in agony as it rolled around, trying to put out its flame. "Like I said, you're not invited. Unless you want a spot in the fireplace." Art then pointed his finger at it again and again, conjuring balls of fire to lob down at it even as it screamed, smouldered, its skin cooking under Art's sustained assault. "There. That warm enough for you?" Within moments it stopped rolling along the edge of the forest floor, reduced to flailing around wildly and shouting in agony until it collapsed, its corpse still aflame. "How about now?"

The other two midget warriors, upon seeing what fate had befallen their comrade, turned and with a cry of "Bawk off!" fled back the way they'd come. Art fired bolt after bolt of flame after them, and one of them fell into a roll to extinguish flames that had caught it, but beyond a dozen paces he failed to land another hit. "Hey, leaving already?" he said, leaping down after them with the way of the albatross before racing after them, chasing them all the way back to the hamlet.

Whereupon a group of four midget warriors formed a line, all with scimitars out and shouting as they rushed at him. "Well okay, that's a decent welcome, but I had intended to barge in uninvited," he shouted, and with might I glide through the sky he had backflipped over them all to land standing upon the chimney of one of the burned out houses. "I daresay you can't get me here either," he said, watching as they stood around him, shouting. He pointed a finger at one of them and a bolt of fire lashed out, scalding it and sending it running away in fear. "But looks like I can still get you from here." Then he proceeded to fire at them, one after another as he turned around looking for new targets while upon the chimneytop, forcing them to back away from him or hide behind piles of debris and half collapsed walls. Within seconds two of them had collapsed, screaming in panic before the flames burned upon their charred corpses. "Would you look at that! Fleeing already? Come on, show me what you got," he taunted them.

A bolt of fire shooting up and right at him forced him to jump down into the ruins of the house that hosted the chimney he'd been standing on, it having no roof left to bar his landing. "Oh, didn't know you had got that too," he said. "Guess I asked for it."

"Nice clothes," said Art, nodding his head toward the shaman. The shaman that had fired it stood right outside the collapsed blackened walls of house, brandishing its own torch-staff. Unlike the loincloth-clad shamans from the previous night, this one wore a white shirt and brown leggings that sagged from being just a bit too loose for its lean frame. A long diagonal slash rent the front of its shirt, stained with blood -- Art figured it had looted those off one of the unfortunates who had resided in the hamlet. "Are those new? You sure you want to wear them to a fire fight?"

The next second a warrior came to its side, forcing Art to abort his plan to leap at it and kill it: with the warrior there, he couldn't get close enough to impale the shaman with the blade of his staff.

"If you like fire so much, here's a gift for you," he said, sending a bolt of fire hurtling at the shaman. It stepped out of the way with ease even as it launched a bolt of its own right back at Art, who likewise dodged. "I don't want the hot potato" he said, sending another bolt right back, only for it to be dodged again. Another incoming bolt, avoided with a quick tilt of his head, and then he was sending another one hurtling forward. "No, you keep it."

"Ah shit," Art said as a pair of the midget warriors ran into the burned down remains of the home and prepared to bear down on Art. When his next bolt of fire burst harmlessly upon his target's buckler, he summoned horizon to horizon and leapt out of the roofless house to stand upon a wooden stake forming the corner of the next burned-down house over. With a twirl of his torch-staff to readjust his grip he launched another bolt of fire at the shaman, who once again stepped out of the way. This time when it fired however, Art had to take flight yet again, not being able to simply step out of the way, seeing as he stood on a single upright panel of wood with none other next to it. By the time he landed, he had to leap again to block the bolt of fire he saw approaching right at him. He couldn't get another bolt off as he leapt yet again, and the next time he leapt a bolt of fire caught him in the chest, bursting against his gambeson.

His gambeson, already torn and ruined from sustaining so many cuts earlier, now burst into flame with ease. He dropped down into a roll and came up smoking; he could feel a burn along his chest where his gambeson had been nearly cut through. He couldn't keep this long range fight against the shaman, not when the midgets rushing at him forced him to high ground, where he had to take a precious moment to see where he could leap to next, where he couldn't make slight dodges the way he could on flat ground, where he could be intercepted mid-leap with a well-timed fire bolt. The fire bolts just came at him too quickly.

Shit, he thought to himself. He would have to engage in melee, where he would have to risk his life, just so that the shaman could not continue to lob its flames at him.

With his next leap Art landed beside one of the midget warriors he'd burned to death, discarding his staff to pick up the scimitar it had dropped. With his next leap he lunged at the nearest midget warrior, slashing out with his scimitar, but not quite far enough to leave himself too vulnerable. He prepared to leap back at a moment's notice, and not too soon as the next swipe from his opponent's scimitar nearly took his leg off. The blood pumped through his veins as he backpedaled, realizing just how close he'd come to getting slain. The scimitar before him flashed with reflected sunlight as it wove this way and that, the midget warrior behind it attempting to get past Art's own blade as he parried that way and this in response.

Another bolt of flame struck where he stood a fraction of a second after he, sensing he'd gotten too far away from his opponent, leapt back. If he'd been hit with the flame and been forced to roll to put it out… The warrior before him could have easily decapitated him. Gritting his teeth, he got in close to the midget warrior, scimitar slashing against scimitar in a whirling dance of blades, even as sweat fell down his neck and drenched his chest and armpits. Carried by the wind, I spin. The fear, so overwhelming. I float on through the sky. The blood, pounding with fury. A lunge, a riposte, a step back, and dodge. Now he pressed the warrior back as he advanced with a flurry of blows; now the midget had him backpedaling in terror with its own pattern of strikes. Dancing upon the breeze… A flame bolt struck next to him, its heat singeing his flesh.

Damn the lost hand, thought Art for the thousandth time. Without it, he couldn't wield a shield, couldn't block all those slashes from the midget warrior in front of him, which forced him to either parry or dodge out of the way. Each time he dodged took him a step away from his foe, which put his enemy out of range of his weapon; and each time he parried meant another opportunity to attack wasted. How he felt pangs of envy for the way the warrior before him so easily turned aside each slash of his blade with a well placed, smooth sweep of its buckler.

A mere buckler! If he could close in on the midget, he could strike at targets further away - the hips, the thighs, the knees, the lower legs, and then that puny little buckler wouldn't block his strokes at all. But backpedaling yet again, he knew he could not get in close enough without making himself vulnerable. How he wished he had on full armor!

I sweep past all that approach. Even reciting the mantra in his mind, evoking its feeling to allow him to dance around sweep after sweep of that incoming scimitar, even with his gambeson to block its strikes, he still felt the stinging bite of a penetrating swing of the scimitar against his chest, saw the scimitar leave with his blood drawn upon it. Too much of his gambeson had fallen to tatters, in many places with only a few layers of unkempt, burnt wool, in other places completely uncovered.

He swung his scimitar against that of his opponent, turned it into a spiraling with that uneasy sound of metal grinding on metal as he kept the midget from turning its thrust into a lethal strike on his person. He stayed a moment too long, and another fire bolt caught him in his chest, scalding across him. Gasping in pain, he backed away, unable to even call upon the way of the albatross as his mind became seized with the excruciating pain of the fire. And then he was rolling along the ground, trying his darnedest to put those flames out before he received any more serious burns.

He could hear the midget swinging its scimitar down at where his head had been but a second ago, then again, as he rolled; knew he was rolling away from his attacker far too slowly, and brought up his scimitar into a defensive sweep to parry aside that incoming blow -- one that would have bitten right into his neck -- and the next moment he'd leapt to his feet. His skin felt tender all over, his mind screaming for him to flee. He was tired, and hungry, and thirsty, and that pain in his right wrist only made matters worse.

As he blocked yet another hit from the midget, retreated another step, he noticed out of his peripheral vision, another midget warrior circling around to attack him from behind. One more second and it would strike a blow against him, perhaps through one of the gashes he knew he sported on his back. He leapt, with his way, atop the nearest burned out wooden half-wall to stand with light feet upon it, for a fraction of a second's respite from the midget warriors before he leapt knowing that a fire bolt would be aiming right where he'd stood an instant ago. He landed back on the ground, on the ash-strewn dirt road in the middle of the hamlet, on the ground once again.

He knew he couldn't keep this up, with the midgets bearing down on him two to one. He couldn't even fight one of them off, and that mean he'd have to find a place where he didn't have to engage the midgets simutaneously. He retreated to a doorway of one of the half-burned-down houses, running right over several charred wooden planks that lay flat upon the entryway, then dodged around the wall, even as a bolt of fire passed overhead. He pressed against the head of of the wooden planks from both sides with the insides of his boots, gave a leap while holding the plank that caused it to rise up into the air, then rested his right foot underneath the falling wooden plank.

Then the moment the first midget warrior charged in past the entryway, he kicked his right foot up, sending the wooden plank up right toward its face. The midget warrior blocked it with its scimitar in its panic, trying to knocking it aside. The next moment Art kicked out with his left foot, sending up a spray of the gray ash that carpeted the ground; and this the midget warrior had not seen, having been distracted by the plank of wood. It flailed wildly, blinking and taking a step back, with its scimitar raised upright and swinging in case Art had lunged right then. Art instead ducked and swung his scimitar at the midget's knees, hacking right into the creature's right knee.

Blood spurted from the severed leg as Art's scimitar slashed on through. The midget warrior before him toppled to its unsupported right with an anguished scream, still swinging its scimitar blindly. The very next moment the midget warrior right behind it had burst into the roofless room, its own blade swinging, forcing Art to parry each blow aside even as he stepped back. It shouted in fury as Art continued to weave around the room with the midget at the center, barely audible above the pained wailing of the fallen one. This last warrior stood at the middle of the room with its scimitar at the ready, watching as Art circled around it.

A footstep warned him of the impending danger, and he brought his scimitar out to parry just as another midget warrior entered the room. Another? Thought Art in confusion for a moment before realizing this one had third degree burned flesh all over it, scorched black here, burned white there, and dripping with pus all over. It stood smoking, and yet remained standing without uttering a sound, its scimitar held at the ready. Two in the same room as him. With a quick swing of his scimitar to knock aside the second midget's swinging blade, he leapt out of the house to hide behind a wall.

With a moment's consideration he realized that had been no fifth midget warrior. He'd engaged all of them already: one he hacked through the leg, one still stood, two he'd burned to death, plus the shaman. The one bearing all those burns had been reanimated by the shaman, and the zombie of course felt no pain. He despaired. Bad enough to have to engage multiple warriors without the protection of his other arm; now he had to fight reanimated warriors too?

But a moment later the two warriors had rounded the corner and bore down on him, the dead one charging in first. He thrust at it experimentally, and the dead one blocked his scimitar with its buckler and then swung with its own scimitar.

Even as Art backed away, he knew the shaman had to be standing somewhere where it could see Art, somewhere that couldn't be but a step or two away from having a vantage point of the room he'd been in a moment earlier, if it could command its puppet to engage Art in both places in rapid succession.The house with the burned down roof only had the one door, and while the rest of the walls had been razed, the lower halves of those walls remained intact. The shaman could only have seen him through the open door of the house that the warriors had charged in from; and for it to also be able to see him now…

With I drift in the open sky he leaped over the two midget warriors and saw the shaman, standing exactly where he'd expected it to be. He could end this right away -- his heart sank when he saw the other burned corpse standing right beside it, as it took a step to cover for its master, its scimitar pointed out at him.

A shaman, a warrior and two reanimated warriors, thought Art as he leapt to the side to avoid his pursuers. After all that fighting, he still had to contend with so many threats. Damn his lost arm, forcing him to lose so much of his combat capability! And damn the shaman, for forcing him into melee with its fire bolts, then supporting the melee with its reanimated minions! Wait a sec, he thought… the shaman was reanimating now. That meant it held its staff skull side up, and couldn't also be shooting flames at him. And that meant he could engage it at range.

He leapt to right where he'd discarded his staff a moment ago, dropped his scimitar to pick up the staff, holding it with crescent side up. Then with another leap he landed balanced upon a half-shattered wooden wall that granted him an impressive vantage point of the hamlet and its four defenders.

Flame sprung into being atop his staff, and he sent them hurtling down at the last living midget warrior, pelting it with flame over and over again. It screamed as it fled, threw itself to the ground and tried to roll to put out the flames, and slowed itself down so much in the process that Art could easily continue to press his attack. Fire bolt after fire bolt streamed at the creature, utterly immolating it, and seconds later it had collapsed screaming, waving its arms and kicking its legs in futility as it died. "There now, I've sent you another puppet for you to animate. Aren't you going to thank me for such a wonderful gift?"

The next moment he leapt out of the way of a bolt of flame coming up from below. Landing upon the ground, he dodged out of the way of another bolt of flame, then shot a fire bolt back at the shaman, who dodged. Art looked upon it to see the two reanimated warriors had collapsed by the shaman's side, now that the shaman held its torch-staff with the crescent side up, having twirled it in its hands to be able to launch offensives in Art's direction. It had started taking steps in retreat, and Art could tell the look of anxiety and fear on its face. When Art paused a moment, it didn't lash out with a bolt of its own, instead staring at Art.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" he asked, taking a step toward the shaman and making it take a step back. "Really? Because if you are…" With the crescent side of his staff pointing forward, he leapt at the shaman, the way of the albatross carrying him the entire ten meters in but a second. He had the staff's blade pointed forward, ready to skewer the shaman, but even as he watched it twirled its staff in its hand to grip it with the skull now pointed up, and the very next moment the dead midget warrior by its feet swung up with the arm holding its scimitar, cutting right into the staff shaft right under the crescent headpiece and knocking it aside; and the next moment it was up, with buckler at the ready to deflect Art's next lunge.

Art leapt away from its counterattack, to stand atop a free-standing chimney again, and pouted at the shaman, "Hey! Don't attack my staff! It's a precious souvenir of when I'd killed one of your cousins!" He adjusted his grip on it to evoke its way of the hearth, ready to finish off the shaman now that it had swapped back to reanimation… but he felt no upwelling of heat and warmth, no feeling of standing before the flame in the fireplace, fill his mind. The staff lay inert in his hand. He studied it with an exaggerated frowm on his face, saw the deep gash where the intercepting scimitar had gouged into the wooden shaft. "Now look what you did to it! You made it so I can't kill your cousin's cousin with it any more!"

In reply, the shaman sent two of its reanimated minions come after Art, scimitar upraised, while keeping the other one close to itself in defense. Art looked down and scoffed. "I believe we're at an impasse. I can't get to you while you have your minion defending, and your minions can't get to me where I'm standing."

The shaman and its guard rushed into the adjacent wreck of a house and touched its skull headpiece against the fourth minion, the one with the leg hacked off. Art saw it had already bled to death, its blood pooling bright red upon the ashes where it had lay. But a moment after the shaman's staff touched the corpse, he saw it start to crawl with its arms and one remaining leg toward Art's chimney. "Or stand at all, it seems."

"You know," Art said as he sat down on the chimney and kicked his legs idly. He paused, waiting for a fire bolt to come at him, then gave the shaman a look when that didn't happen. Damn, he thought; he'd hoped the shaman would take the bait and switch to using its long ranged attack and leave itself vulnerable, but it seemed the shaman had learned its lesson. Instead, the minions struggled to try to prop themselves on each other, with the ones below supporting the weight of those above it, and failing completely. They fell into a heap at the bottom of the chimney.

"You know, you and I are quite alike. We both have staves," he said, giving his staff a little shake. "We both know how to fight, and neither of us really has any allies." He cocked his head. "Well, you have your minions, I'll give you that much." He twirled his staff to hold it by the skull. "And the fact that one of them managed to get in a lucky blow on my staff and ruining the carving for fire bolt. I'll give you that one as well. And as a result you have me in a bit of a pickle." He swung his staff about, idly, looking at the shaman, then its minions, then at his skull-staff, trying to come up with what he could do next.

He couldn't win with a scimitar, not against so many reanimated warriors. He couldn't launch fire bolts now that the crescent side of his staff had been damaged. He couldn't get close enough to impale the shaman with the crescent side blade at all. The skull side… Well, he figured it'd be more or less useless as well. He hadn't practiced much with reanimating bone, couldn't quite grasp how to get it to actually reanimate anything, much less control it in battle, but it remained one of the very few tools in his arsenal. And even if he had, there just remained the slight problem of him not having any bones at his disposal. He couldn't very well use his own…

Holding the staff with the skull side up, he felt the sensation of puppeting bony figures well into him, tried to reach out for the bones within the struggling corpses below him. If he could wrest control of that away from the shaman, now that would be ironic, he figured. Of course, he felt nothing, no sense that he had any control of those below. He realized that the midget warriors' bodies had already been claimed by the shaman as it had gotten to them first. Even as he stared at the skull atop his staff, trying to simply will himself into controlling them, yet still nothing happened.

He stopped concentrating as he stared at the skull headpiece. Skull. Bone. Why the fuck didn't he think of it earlier.

"The difference between you and me, shaman, is that I'm smarter."

With a forceful swing and the thought of Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, he swung the skull headpiece into the stone chimneytop.

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